Written by Mike Mariani.
Michael Cunningham, the wonderful novelist and author of “The Hours,” writes the following in the prologue to his recent collection of fairy tale modernizations, “A Wild Swan”: “If certain manifestations of perfection can be disgraced, or disfigured, or sent to walk the earth in iron shoes, the rest of us will find ourselves living in a less arduous world; a world of more reasonable expectations; a world in which the appellations ‘beauty’ and ‘potency’ can be conferred upon a larger cohort of women and men.” I read this and was immediately floored. It was one of those exquisitely rare moments when you stumble into a perfect articulation of something that you’ve always believed deep in your heart and soul, but were never quite able to piece together in words.
To me Cunningham’s passage speaks to a secret logic under which humanity operates. Not everyone can have effortless lives; be born into wealth and privilege; or thrive in perfect mental and physical health. Tragedies are not just big and sweeping and news-grabbing. Most times they are miniscule, like razors or splinters or thorns, lodging themselves deep into a single human life and wreaking havoc until they are (if ever) pulled out. Pain and hardship are not, in fact, the universal human condition, nor are they evenly distributed. God does not disburse grief, grace, and mercy with a soup ladle; he is an action painter, dripping, splashing, and pitching colors to canvas, leaving some spots thick and others thin. When the mural dries, some of us are asked to carry a heavier burden of His paint.
Which brings me back to that secret logic, and Cunningham’s philosophy-sprung-from-fairy-tale. I believe, deep in my heart, that those of us that are afflicted, maligned, brought low by the Fates, and forced to walk the earth in iron shoes are not only bearing our own burden, but are bearing the burden for all of humanity. Without pain and adversity there would be no frame of reference by which to gauge happiness, success, joy, and triumph. Consider the analogy: if everyone had an annual salary of one million dollars, then that would no longer constitute affluence. Likewise, if everyone was assured a lifetime of uninterrupted good health, then we would not regard human life as a gift or a blessing; it would simply be, neutral and prosaic in the absence of its loss.
If not for the fairy-tale curses of disease, addiction, poverty, and bereavement, humanity would not have the discernment needed to recognize what it means to be blessed. Lacking the former, we would have no barometer by which to measure the latter, no contrast on the canvas through which to identify it. Hardship and hidden privation—a fatherless young girl staring into a fireplace’s glowing cinders; a teenage boy horribly disfigured and spurned by his beloved each and every night; a princess first orphaned and then stripped to a scullery maid’s rags by fate and malice—somehow keep our world spinning, activating our gratitude, empathy and warmth. That is, of course, why we consecrate through stories these troubled little souls, these castaways and waifs, wooden boys and tongueless mermaids, reclusive fairies and forlorn beasts: they make the world less arduous for the rest of us. We secretly, unconsciously, know that hardship is ineradicable, and if one person is beset by it then another springs free from its yawning talons.
Fairy tales remind us of this enigmatic spiritual truth. They are beautiful, heartrending little enactments of that secret logic that tells us that if there were no hardship in the world, there would be no joy. And so, as we pass into the New Year, I want for everyone who carries her own burden to remember the iridescent flip side of that burden. For reasons impossible to know, humanity was wrought with irony, paradox, and contradiction: to be “cursed”—by a magic mirror, a rotten apple, a finger pricked, a rose enchanted—is to make being blessed possible. Those of you who walk the earth in iron shoes are heroines from fairy tales, even if you can’t always see it. It is you who have been chosen to hold the world up, you who make beauty and potency and rapture and grace possible.